Category Archives: courts

Defamation research and social media mean it’s time to consider reform

By MARK PEARSON

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my commentary welcoming the NSW Government’s rethink of defamation law in the light of recent research showing a large number of cases involve ordinary citizens (rather than celebrities) and social media posts (as distinct from media publications).

It was titled ‘Social media gives people a wider audience for their bile – and defamation laws must reflect that’.

Here is the extended unedited version for those with a special interest:

The decision to review NSW defamation laws announced yesterday is overdue, and changes need to address several aspects of the legislation as well as the very human flaws of vindictive remarks, fragile egos and ignorance of the law.

NSW District Court defamation expert Judge Judith Gibson called for reform this week, pointing to the rise of Internet-related defamation cases, a phenomenon unanticipated when uniform defamation laws were introduced throughout Australia in a landmark 2005 reform.

Her argument was underscored by research released last week by the UTS Centre for Media Transition which found that more than half of defamation cases over the past five years involved reputational damage in a digital medium, up from 17 per cent in 2007 when social media was in its infancy.

The common perception that defamation cases typically involve celebrities suing the media for millions of dollars – like recent litigants Rebel Wilson and Geoffrey Rush – is a myth. The study showed that among the 189 decided cases from 2013-2017, only one third of defendants were media companies, and only about one fifth of those bringing the action were celebrities or public figures.

When you read the detail on the cases, it becomes clear that most defamation cases are contests between ordinary citizens over negative remarks they have made about each other on social media, websites, emails and other means of digital communication.

With the advent of social media, everyone is a publisher in the eyes of defamation law – and many more people in far-flung places can see or hear the nasty things we say about each other.

Broken friendships, business disagreements and political or moral debates escalate and get vindictive and personal.

There was the first Twitter case where a misguided former student posted a social media character assassination against a school teacher because he mistakenly thought she had cost his father his job.

And the disgruntled businessman who used the social media platform WeChat and targeted emails to tell the world a meat trader was a conman, corrupt and a criminal, with no factual basis.

And the Victorian junior football umpire with Asperger’s Syndrome who was taunted on a US autism website with falsities that he was a pedophile and was faking his condition.

For centuries there have been some people inclined to write poison pen letters, spread nasty rumours and to post sick messages on public noticeboards and toilet walls. The Internet and social media has given them a wide audience for their bile and some of these now result in defamation trials.

Prior to the 2005 reforms, defamation law in Australia was a complicated mess. Major variations existed across the states and territories on a host of issues, including the limitation periods in which people could bring an action and the defences available. ‘Forum shopping’ was rife, with plaintiffs selecting the jurisdiction where the law best suited their case.

The reforms were remarkable in that attorneys-general in eight states and territories reached agreement and forged the changes through their parliaments.

But those laws are desperately in need of reform if they are to catch up with the social and technological changes of the past decade.

The ‘offer of amends’ system introduced with the last reforms was a novel initiative to keep actions out of court with encouragement for an early offer of damages and an apology. But it is complex, often appealed, and other mediation incentives should be put in place to educate parties about settling their differences earlier to avoid the public and personal expense and distress of litigation. Alternative remedies to damages and injunctions would be a bonus.

The triviality defence is flawed and needs to include something of the flavor of the UK’s “serious harm” test – requiring serious reputational harm as a prerequisite to an action.

Changes also need to encourage public interest journalism rather than punish it.

Journalists deserve a stronger public interest (qualified privilege) defence which does not fail when they refuse to reveal their confidential sources and allows for minor errors in important exposés.

And the truth defence should be narrowed to focus on the single most obvious defamatory meaning to give certainty to the reportage so that lawyers do not generate more obscure meanings a journalist might never have anticipated when researching a story.

The implied freedom to communicate on matters of government – a welcome but technical initiative of the High Court – should be enshrined as a formal statutory defence and satirists should get their own defence to better protect robust political critique via parody and satire.

But in tandem with defamation reforms we need government investment in digital legal literacy. School and adult learning curricula must include the basic legalities of social media and Internet use – stressing the key risks posed by defamatory and contemptuous posts.

Teachers might use some of those moral aphorisms our mothers used to tell us.

They would scold us over our nasty comments with “Do not say to others what you would not want said to you”.

And they would soothe our fragile egos:  and “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Education and mediation encouraging mindful communication might resolve some defamation actions before they even start.

 


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Rare victory for truth defence in vocational education case – #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

CASE REPORT: Charan v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2018] VSC 3

The Australian newspaper had a rare victory using the truth (or justification) defence to defamation in a recent case involving a vocational education businessman.

Pure truth defences rarely make their way through the courts because they are usually either settled or decided on other defences such as honest opinion, fair report, triviality or qualified privilege.

Plaintiffs will not usually undergo the pain of public defamation trials if there is some semblance of truth to the allegations against them which will be aired for all to see in media coverage.

 

Facts

On November 20, 2015, The Australian newspaper published a print article (‘Watchdog takes peak training college to court’) and a similar online version (‘ACCC to take top training college Phoenix Institute to court’). The story was about proposed court action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) against a vocational training college called Phoenix Institute owned by the publicly listed Australian Careers Network company (CAN) in the midst of a general crackdown on the sector over unscrupulous door-to-door marketing practices. The article mentioned earlier media reports that alleged Phoenix had sent sales staff into housing commission estates, pressuring potential students to join up and stated that the parent company was under investigation by both the Federal Department of Education and the Australian Skills Quality Authority and that its shares had been suspended from trade for the previous month. The article identified the plaintiff, Atkinson Prakash Charan, as one of the company’s heads and stated he had amassed a $35 million fortune from the vocational education business. In short, it suggested that, “whilst under his management, VET organisations acted unscrupulously, in breach of regulatory standards, and that he made a large amount of money as a result of that conduct” (para 2). Mr Charan had in fact left the company about a year earlier and The Australian the next day published a correction to that effect in its print edition and later an online apology for the error.

Law

The plaintiff pleaded eight imputations arose from the article, which the judge grouped into four headings:

  1. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company which engaged in unscrupulous business practices that took advantage of vulnerable consumers

  2. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company which engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct.

  3. Charan was head of ACN, which engaged in unscrupulous door-to-door marketing practices to vulnerable consumers

  4. Mr Charan [as head of] ACN carried on a business which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards (para 27).

The defendant Nationwide News – publisher of The Australian – argued successfully that imputations 2 and 3 did not arise and defended the imputations of unscrupulous business practices and significant noncompliance with quality standards successfully using the justification defence by proving that the imputations were substantially true as required under section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005. To prove the unscrupulous conduct allegations it had to convince the court under the civil burden of proof – the ‘balance of probabilities’ – that there was ‘clear and cogent proof’. To do so it drew upon a host of material obtained after the publication, including:

(a) the oral testimony of a number of witnesses who had worked in the CTI group;

(b) the oral testimony of three “students” allegedly enrolled in CTI courses conducted by CTI companies;

(c) the contents of a series of audit reports, student interviews and file reviews (with associated documentation) of CTT and AMA, carried out in 2015 under the instructions of DET; and

(d) a large number of emails and associated documents flowing to and from Mr Charan and other officers or employees of the CTI companies” (para 77).

The latter included records of phone calls and messages subpoenaed from Mr Charan’s telephone service provider Telstra.

Justice Forrest found the plaintiff was ‘was an entirely unreliable witness, not only on this issue but as to all matters relevant to his claim’ (para 111). He concluded with a concise summary of his 768 paragraph judgment:

(a) Mr Charan was defamed in both the written and online versions of the article;

(b) the article defamed him by conveying imputations that:

(1) Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which engaged in unscrupulous business practices which took advantage of vulnerable consumers which resulted in him making a large amount of money; and

(2) Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards

I am satisfied that Nationwide has established the substantial truth of both imputations. (paras 762 -763).

Lessons for professional communicators

Several lessons arise from this rare but successful use of the justification (truth) defence by a publisher:

  • Considerable evidence can be required to prove the truth of imputations stemming from an article, and sometimes this has to be located after the reporting and publishing process has finished, although as much evidence as possible should be available at the time of publication;
  • A publisher defendant can still win a case on the pleaded imputations even if there is basic error in the story – in this case the fact that Mr Charan had not been formally involved with the management of the company for a year. (Of course, such errors should normally be avoided).;
  • Defamation cases can be enormously expensive. In this case the 35-day trial was reported to have cost both side mores than $3.5 million in legal fees (Duke and Vedelago, 2018)

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Reporting upon forensic mental health cases and identifying patients

By MARK PEARSON

What are the key policy factors influencing courts and tribunals attempting to balance open justice against other rights and interests in newsworthy cases involving forensic mental health patients? 

Associate Professor Tom Morton from UTS, ABC lawyer Hugh Bennett and I examined this question – and the related issue of whether the media could report upon such cases and identify the patients involved – in our recent article in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our conclusion:

Open justice in mental health proceedings need not be viewed in a vacuum. There are strong parallels with numerous other situations where the legislature and the courts find and apply exceptions to the open justice principle. There is much scope for consistency across Australian jurisdictions and across the many situations where the restrictions are in place because of different vulnerabilities faced by key participants in the court process – mental health patients, children, sexual crime victims, family law parties, protected witnesses and, in two Australian states, even those accused of sexual offences until after the committal stage of proceedings.

There is a strong argument that the courts should be most transparent when the public gaze is so sharply focussed upon them, and that public education about the workings of the justice system in the important area of mental health will be most effective when citizens are intrigued by a particular story and know its background. The courts might acknowledge that in some circumstances a story can be both “interesting to the public” and “in the public interest” – and that perhaps the two notions might not have to be mutually exclusive as Lord Wilberforce so famously suggested.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

We compared four forensic mental health cases in Australia and the UK and highlighted some of the key competing rights and interests at stake when the news media or other parties seek to have mental health proceedings opened and to identify the patients involved. The approaches of the tribunals and courts we  studied showed the competing policy considerations in such applications were by no means clear-cut. They varied markedly from case to case with regards to the potential impact on the patient and other stakeholders and in their respective public interest value in the stories being told to broader communities. Policies around publicity are complicated when expert psychiatric opinion varies on the potential impact on the mental health and treatment regime for the patient.

The weighing of such important rights and interests is not a precise science where a pre-set formula will apply. Of course, important differences between Australian and UK jurisdictions inform such decisions, including different statutory frameworks for the particular tribunals, together with the lack of a formal human rights framework in Australia, comparable with the European Convention on Human Rights, which affords privacy and free expression rights. In Australia, these considerations draw upon the common law, because there is as yet no actionable tort of privacy invasion and free expression is limited to a High Court-designed implied constitutional freedom of communication with respect to “discussion of government and political matters”. Further, the various mental health tribunals dealing with applications from or regarding forensic patients operate within their own statutory frameworks, rules and practice directions which sometimes bind, and in other circumstances guide, their decisions on whether hearings can be held in public and, if so, whether parties and other participants might be identified.

In Australia alone, the nine jurisdictions have taken a variety of approaches to whether such hearings are held in public and whether parties must be anonymised in any reporting permitted. Open justice can be viewed as a policy continuum, ranging from closed hearings and a total ban on reporting at one end through to open hearings with full identification of parties allowed as part of a fair and accurate report of proceedings at the other. Somewhere in between are attempts to strike a balance between open justice and competing rights and interests with partial permissions; where the public or the media might be admitted to proceedings with a range of conditions placed upon the extent of identification of parties or witnesses allowed.

We developed  this list of key policy factors elicited from the cases reviewed, influencing whether a forensic patient or former patient might be given a public hearing or be identified in proceedings:

  1. Specific legislation, regulations, rules and practice directions relating to privacy and anonymity in hearings involving forensic patients or former patients;

  2. Whether there is informed consent from the patient to identification and publicity of his or her case;

  3. The extent to which a public trial and/or identification impacts upon on the life (ECHR Article 2), ill-treatment (ECHR Article 3), liberty (ECHR Article 5), and other rights, dignity and self respect of patients; including the impact of publicity and identification on their mental health and well being, ongoing treatment, safety and ease of re-entry to the community after treatment/rehabilitation;

  4. The impact of a public hearing or identification upon the right to privacy (ECHR Article 8) of the patient and other participants, and the confidentiality of personal medical details;

  5. The historic principle of open justice (ECHR Article 6): fundamental principles of transparency and justice ‘being seen to be done’, as espoused in Scott v. Scott; the public interest in transparency of mental health processes and proceedings;

  6. Freedom of expression and communication (ECHR Article 10); including the freedom of expression of the media, patients and other participants like hospital and prison personnel;

  7. The public’s right to know: public understanding of the mental health system and its treatment of patients; the public interest in knowing the outcome of highly publicised or emblematic cases; the public interest in knowing of wrongdoing in the mental health system; and the public interest in the safety and security of their communities;  

  8. Impact of identification and publicity upon other parties, including hospital staff, other patients, victims and their families;

  9. Public administration costs (economic and organisational) associated with implementing effective systems of publicity and identification. (For example, hospitals’ and courts’ management of media inquiries, extra costs of security for patient, special accommodation for public hearings, expense of installing video links etc);

  10. Stage of the process – for example, publicity and identification might be allowed on early applications related to conditions while institutionalised, but perhaps refused when re-entry to society is imminent or has already passed;

  11. The track record of the applicant media organisation/s in prior coverage and ethical management of privacy and consent issues, in this and perhaps in other comparable cases; the nature of the proposed program or publication and whether it is likely to be of a professional standard, balanced, accurate, reflective of a range of stakeholder views and sensitive to the patient’s experiences; and the context and focus of the identification of the patient in the media output;

  12. Whether a public hearing and/or identification of a patient might risk stigmatising mental illness.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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INFORRM a highly recommended resource for journalists and media law students #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Congratulations to UK-based media law blog INFORRM (INternational Forum for Responsible Media) on reaching an impressive 4 million hits since it started seven years ago.

The site – international but with an understandable UK orientation – boasts more than 5,500 followers including  3,500 on Twitter @inforrm.

INFORRM has just listed its Top Twenty Posts of all time (in descending order of popularity):

From time to time over recent years they have been kind enough to repost my blogs or commentary pieces, including these:

Australia: Whither media reform under Abbott? – Mark Pearson

25 11 2013

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Read the rest of this entry »

Privacy in Australia – a timeline from colonial capers to racecourse snooping, possum perving and delving drones – Mark Pearson

13 10 2013

Australia MapThe interplay between the Australian media and privacy laws has always been a struggle between free expression and the ordinary citizen’s desire for privacy. I have developed this timeline to illustrate that tension. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Privacy On Parade – Mark Pearson

12 05 2012

The right to privacy is a relatively modern international legal concept. Until the late 19th century gentlemen used the strictly codified practice of the duel to settle their disputes over embarrassing exposés of their private lives.

The first celebrity to convert his personal affront into a legal suit was the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père, who in 1867 sued a photographer who had attempted to register copyright in some steamy images of Dumas with the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the day – 32-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Australia: News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for – Mark Pearson

10 03 2012

The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released on 28 February 2012 is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least Aus$2 million of government funding annually. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Consumer law holds solution to grossly irresponsible journalism – Mark Pearson

9 11 2011

This post originally appeared on the Australian Journlaw blog.  It suggests an interesting new approach to media regulation which, as far as we know, has not been suggested in debates in this country.  We are reproducing it with permission and thanks to provide a further perspective on those debates.

Australia does not need a media tribunal with regulatory powers to punish ethical transgressions.  It already has one – in the form of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (“ACCC”). Read the rest of this entry »


… as well as occasional snippets in their useful Law and Media Roundup section and this review of my book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued by media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell:

Book Review: Mark Pearson “Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued” – Leanne O’Donnell

11 04 2012

Professor Mark Pearson’s Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued will be welcomed by anyone writing online … Melbourne media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell reviews this timely legal guide to a rapidly evolving media landscape

Mark Pearson’s new book Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online – is very accessible guide to laws relevant to the all those writing online. Read the rest of this entry »


I find the INFORRM “Blogroll” is a particularly useful resource – regularly updated and featuring these media law blogs from throughout the world. Together they provide a wonderful resource for media law students, journalists and researchers. (Thanks for including journlaw.com,  INFORRM!)

Surely sufficient bedtime reading for even the most avid media law geek!

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice

By MARK PEARSON

Our article comparing Australian and UK restrictions on the reporting of forensic mental health cases has appeared in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our abstract:

Media reportage about forensic mental health cases raises several competing rights and interests, including the public interest in open justice; a patient’s right to privacy, treatment and recovery; the public’s right to know about mental health tribunal processes; and victims’ and citizens’ interests in learning the longer term consequences of a publicised serious unlawful act. This article details a case study of successful applications for permission to identify a forensic mental health patient in both a radio documentary and in research blogs and scholarly works in Australia. It compares the authors’ experience in this case with three other cases in Australia and the UK, and identifies and weighs the competing policy issues and principles courts or tribunals consider when attempting to balance open justice with the rights and interests of a range of stakeholders in forensic mental health cases where the news media and/or patients are seeking publicity and/or identification.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mental health, open justice, Press freedom, social media, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

DEFAMATION CASE UPDATE: Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd – identification and offer of amends appealed #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

CASE UPDATE: Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd – 2015, 2016 and 2017

I blogged in 2016 about a case where the mistaken identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor in place of his alleged gun-running son produced a useful case study for media law educators trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

Indeed, the NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 remains an excellent introduction to defamation, although in October 2016 the NSW Court of Appeal overturned the publisher’s defence of “offer of amends” which was originally granted by the lower court, in the appeal case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2016] NSWCA 283, and awarded the plaintiff $150,000 in damages. The appellant, Mr Tony Zoef, also had a partial victory in a more recent appeal over the backdating of the damages award, costs and interest owing in Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd (No 2) [2017] NSWCA 2.

The first appeal is useful for educators explaining identification issues in defamation and the “offer of amends” defence requirements under s 18 of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW) (Defamation Act) – and its equivalent in other Australian jurisdictions – while the 2017 appeal holds little value for media law teachers.

The case centred upon an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 22 August 2013.

It appeared a relatively straightforward case of confused identity, where the reporter mistakenly attributed to the older Mr Zoef – a suburban Sydney tailor – the alleged crimes of his son who lived at the same address. At trial, the sole basis on which Mr Zoef’s claim was dismissed was the newspaper’s defence that Mr Zoef had failed unreasonably to accept its offer of amends.

The article in the Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) carried the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”, which might also make an interesting topic of discussion for students around the issue of sub judice contempt: Does such a heading carry a presumption of the accused’s guilt when accompanying a report of a preliminary court appearance? [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed a then 81-year-old suburban tailor (with a distinctive surname ‘Zoef’) as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

As I blogged in 2016, the trial judgment by District Court Judge Leonard Levy is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first [*** considered on appeal].
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age]. [*** considered on appeal].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff [***the trial judge’s decision which was subsequently overturned on appeal].

The trial judge had held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the publisher’s offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

In the leading appeal judgment, Justice Fabian Gleeson stated:

Taking into account the seriousness of the defamatory imputations and the significant hurt they caused the appellant, the damage to his business as a tailor, the unequal prominence the respondent afforded to the proposed correction and apology and their resultant inadequacy, the modest monetary component of the offer, and the likelihood of the proceedings being successful, the offer of amends was not reasonable. His Honour was in error in finding to the contrary and upholding the respondent’s defence under s 18 of the Defamation Act. (at para 78).

His reasons for that decision involved a step-by-step appraisal of the offer of amends defence and thus make useful instructional material for educators wanting to explain this defence to students. It should also serve to remind journalists that the offer of amends is very much a ‘lawyers’ defence’ – not something that should be handled by journalists or editors independent of legal advice – and given its time constraints it means that counsel from lawyers on the efficacy and wording of any such offer should be sought promptly.

The publisher also challenged the trial judge’s findings on whether the plaintiff had been identified in the article when it carried a photograph of his son and stated his age as 43 years old.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial judge’s decision that Mr Zoef Sr had been identified in the article despite those countering factors. Justice Gleeson ruled:

The article in this case contained a prominent and sensational headline, which, when read together with the first paragraph (par 29), would be reasonably understood to refer to the appellant. The strength of the general impression thereby created surpasses and dominates that of the subsequent reference in par 30 to a “43 year old” which is not something the ordinary reasonable reader might be expected to have focused on, let alone re-read or reviewed. It lacked the prominence of the sensational headline and the focus on the local, relatable indicia of the identified person’s name, profession and locality in the foregoing paragraph.

In respect of the photograph, his Honour’s finding that it was “immaterial” is supported by three considerations. One is that the photograph was small, cropped, and, as his Honour found, “less than distinct”. Next, the appellant gave unchallenged evidence in cross-examination that his son was not known to his customers. No identification would therefore have been made on a visual basis by the appellant’s customers. Finally, the use of historical photographs in newspaper articles is not so uncommon as to render unreasonable a conclusion by the ordinary reasonable reader that the article (with an unfamiliar photo) referred yet to the appellant. (paras 159-160).

So there you have it. The Zoef case – both at trial and on appeal – holds valuable lessons for media law students and educators are encouraged to use it as a case study. I have done so successfully with both journalists and tertiary students.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Filed under blogging, contempt of court, courts, defamation, free expression, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Press freedom, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

Identification error leads to a useful case for teaching the basic elements of defamation

**See UPDATE after appeal**

By MARK PEARSON

[research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

The morphed identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor and his alleged gun-running son produces a useful case study for teachers and trainers trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

The NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 centred upon an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) with the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”. [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed an 86-year-old suburban tailor with a distinctive name as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

The case is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff.

On the question of identification, Judge Leonard Levy ruled:

Para 37   …where a plaintiff has actually been named in a defamatory publication it is not necessary for the plaintiff to show that those to whom the material was published knew the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v World Hosts Pty Ltd (1978 – 1979) 141 CLR 632, at 639.

38   Even so, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory matter should be understood to be referring to him: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91. The determination of that question of identification is not to be decided by a consideration of what the publisher intended: Hutton v Jones [1910] AC 20.

39   In cases where a defamatory publication names one person but another person of the same name has been defamed, this can give rise to more than one claim: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276, as cited in Australian Defamation Law and Practice, Volume 1, TK Tobin QC, MG Sexton SC, eds, 2003, at [6050].

40   In determining the question of identification, the question is, would a sensible reader reasonably identify the plaintiff as the person defamed: Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239. …

49   In my view, the combined context … serves to adequately identify the plaintiff….

52   …the article strings together the plaintiff’s name, his profession, the fact that he lives in his home in the Sutherland Shire, and has a business altering the clothes of locals all point strongly to the article mentioning the plaintiff by his name and is sufficient of his personal situation to indicate it was him who was the subject of the article.

53   Those details all follow the sensational headline “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” thereby making a connection between the plaintiff and the described illegal activity concerning the cache of weapons and ammunition found at the premises.

54   The fact that an unclear undated photograph of Tony Zoef appears in the article (at par 38) is immaterial. The fact the article identifies the age of the person the subject of the article as being a 43 year old does introduce an element of possible confusion (par 30) along with the indistinct photograph (at par 38), but inaccuracy of some details appearing in a newspaper article is not an unknown phenomenon.

55   The salient feature is that the plaintiff was named in the article with sufficient of his personal details to suggest he was thereby identified, although the latter details are not essential to that finding.

56   As the article in question named the plaintiff, in my view thereby identifying him, this forms the basis of his right to bring the proceedings without more being shown by him. The fact that there were two persons at the premises named Tony Zoef is immaterial. Both persons of that name could bring proceedings for defamation in their own names: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276.

59   …I am nevertheless satisfied that the material complained of should be understood as referring to the plaintiff even though the publisher may not have intended that to be so: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91.

60   I consider that … an ordinary sensible reader would identify the plaintiff as the person the subject of the material complained of because of the specific of his name, profession, and locality as already explained. Such a reader… would not read such a sensational article as the one in question with critical and analytical care.

61   The article would be approached by such a reader with the permissible amount of loose thinking, and that reader would be reasonably entitled to draw the conclusion that the article was referring to the plaintiff, even though there were some elements of confusion such as a less than distinct photograph and a different age mentioned to that of the plaintiff. An ordinary reasonable reader would not necessarily know the plaintiff’s age or his level of interest in matters to do with space. The headline of “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” would catch the attention of such a reader and permit the general impression of the story being a reference to the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Limited v World Hosts Proprietary Limited [1978 – 1979] 141 CLR 632, at p 646; Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239.

The judge also considered the important question of the impact of headlines:

44   In cases involving headlines, it must be borne in mind that the ordinary reasonable reader will draw conclusions from general impressions when reading the matter complained of. Such general impressions are necessarily formed by the technique of using prominent headlines to communicate the principal message of the publication, and it must be recognised that in that process, such material may diminish the reputations of those affected: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Limited (1998) 193 CLR 519, at p 575.

A large portion of the judgment centred upon whether a defence of ‘offer of amends’ should be upheld under s 18(1)(c) of the Defamation Act. The judge held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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